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Drop box surveillance installed by Utah clerks, but questions remain

May 25, 2022, 7:00 AM | Updated: 7:16 am
drop box video surveillance...
A man submits his ballot at a drop box at the Salt Lake County government building in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015. Chris Samuels, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY, UT — Thanks to a new state law passed in 2022, 24-hour video surveillance is now required at every drop box in Utah.  And some county clerks report worries over unanswered questions like who has access to the video, and when it violates someone’s privacy to be made public.

Installation

New video surveillance cameras have been set up at drop boxes across Utah. Photo credit: Lindsay Aerts

Some counties went to great lengths to install the cameras before ballots go out on June 7.

For instance, in Salt Lake County, 21 drop boxes still need cameras. Officials say crews are working feverishly to “jimmy rig” solar-powered cameras atop 15-foot poles near these drop boxes.

Each drop box will have a pole with a camera attached.

“The first challenge was notifying the locations where the drop boxes are situated,” said Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swenson. “That is not our property.”

Like the drop box at the County Library. “They said they have policies against having cameras that surveil their patrons,” Swenson said.

Swenson and her team feared they may have to move some drop boxes that voters have come to rely on. Then, they came up with somewhat of an engineering feat.

The cameras atop the poles point straight down, so as not to film any other area but the drop box.

“It would have been a lot more costly to move the drop boxes, so I’m glad we could come up with this solution,” Swenson said. 

Is video from drop box surveillance public?

In the smaller county of Sevier, officials with the County Clerk’s office say they only have three drop boxes in total. Luckily, they say, two already had cameras.

Lead Deputy Clerk Barbara Crowther said installing the drop box surveillance was simple. Her worries are with the video.

“Say a mom drops [a ballot] off and her child wants to put it in the ‘magic drop box’, you know, is the identity of that child public?” She said. “Those are questions I don’t have answers to.”

In Utah, it is legal to drop off a ballot for anyone living in your house. It’s illegal to ballot harvest, or collect ballots for anyone else. 

Crowther worries that because a person is allowed to drop off multiple ballots, the video could be used to accuse someone of stuffing a ballot box when they’re not.

During this past legislative session, while the newly minted law was being debated, the sponsor, Senator Dan Mccay argued county clerks could reach out to family members and confirm the ballots being dropped off are valid.

The cameras, he said, would help them catch criminals.

But Swenson argues ballot stuffing has never been a problem in Utah.

“I’ve never heard of anyone going out and gathering up ballots,” she said.

How to get the video from drop box surveillance

Since the law doesn’t limit who has access to the video, a Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA, request could make it public.

Swenson thinks that is a mistake.

“The surveillance should be for the Lt. Governor’s office, and the elections official, and if (the state legislature) want(s) the state legislative auditors to have it that would be fine too,” Swenson said. 

She says her office already gets inundated with GRAMA requests from poll watchers. The requests require her office to sift through elections data, to figure out what’s public and what’s not.

“I think that will be the same situation for these,” she said.

In total, these cameras cost taxpayers $500,000.

Swenson doesn’t think the juice is worth the squeeze.

“I’m glad maybe it will deter someone from damaging the drop box but other than that, the purpose for which they passed it, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense.”

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Drop box surveillance installed by Utah clerks, but questions remain